COVID-19 cases on Georgia college campuses declining

ATLANTA – New cases of COVID-19 on University System of Georgia campuses started to come down this week after increasing at the beginning of the fall semester.

The number of positive tests reported at nine schools – including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech – declined this week, mirroring a trend that occurred at the same time last year.

“Whenever we see a decline in cases, we are grateful, and we hope this downward trend holds,” said Dr. Shelley Nuss, co-chair of UGA’s Medical Oversight Task Force. “We saw a similar pattern last fall: a peak in cases shortly after we began classes that then fell markedly and leveled off.

“We hope that with our continued push to encourage vaccinations, testing and masking, our numbers will continue to decline. COVID-19 is a very serious disease, and vaccines remain our best defense.”

The decline in positive tests for the virus came as the campuses ramped up vaccination campaigns stressed continuing health and safety protocols.

More than 313,000 COVID-19 tests have been sent to campuses, and an additional 50,000 tests are on the way. The university system also has distributed 942,000 gloves, 432,000 masks and face shields, 21,400 gowns and about 1,000 gallons of sanitizer and disinfectant solution.

“Thank you to the students, faculty and staff who have gotten vaccinated and taken seriously all we’ve asked them to do to keep themselves and their campuses safe,” Acting Chancellor Teresa MacCartney said.

“We appreciate everyone who’s wearing a mask on campus, staying home when they’re not feeling well, getting tested and, most of all, getting vaccinated. It’s making a difference.”

But those efforts haven’t been enough to satisfy groups of students, faculty and staff, who have conducted demonstrations this week on campuses across the state demanding the university system impose a mask mandate.

Other campuses experiencing a decline in positive tests for COVID-19 this week include Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Clayton State University, Columbus State University, Fort Valley State University, Georgia Southern University, Kennesaw State University and the University of North Georgia

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Delivery of monoclonal treatments changed in Georgia

Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

ATLANTA – The federal government has changed the way COVID-19 monoclonal antibody treatments are being distributed in the United States, including Georgia.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said this week the decision comes from supply shortages and demand for the treatments across the country, mainly due to the delta variant’s rapid spread.

Health-care providers will no longer be able to order the treatments directly. HHS said it will determine each state’s weekly allocation of monoclonal antibody products based on use and the number of new COVID cases.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said it will identify which sites in the state will receive the product and the amount each site receives.

Health-care providers must record their administration of the products in order to be eligible to receive additional shipments.

On Tuesday, Dr. R. Chris Rustin, director of the department’s Division of Health Protection, told a virtual Board of Public Health meeting preliminary data shows monoclonal antibody therapy is effective mostly early in treatment.

“You have to get it early on,” said Rustin, who added the state Department of Public Health is collaborating with the Department of Community Health to support the existing, 136 sites across the state. “It’s important to stress this is not a substitute for vaccines,” Rustin said.

Monoclonal antibodies are synthetic, laboratory-created antibodies. They help people at high risk for severe COVID illness, individuals who have tested positive for the virus within the last 10 days, or people who are close contacts of persons who have tested positive for COVID.

“We have safe and highly effective vaccines to protect against COVID-19. It is much easier to get a vaccine than risk becoming seriously ill with life threatening complications,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the agency’s commissioner.

“Monoclonal antibodies are in short supply and high demand and hospital beds are full. What Georgia does have is enough vaccine for all Georgians aged 12 and over to be vaccinated.”

As of Wednesday, 53% of Georgians have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine and 46% of Georgians are fully vaccinated.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Senate examining growth in university fees

Teresa MacCartney

ATLANTA – Ever-increasing fees the University System of Georgia’s (USG) 26 colleges and universities charge students are making it harder to afford a college education in the Peach State, a state senator said Wednesday.

The fees even part-time and graduate students are forced to pay each semester have grown significantly, particularly since the Great Recession, Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Atlanta, told members of a Senate study committee created this year to examine the issue and make recommendations.

“Every parent of a USG student sees a long list of fees when they pay the tuition bill,” she said. That bill doesn’t make them happy, especially when the HOPE scholarship doesn’t cover fees.”

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who joined Harrell in sponsoring the resolution creating the study committee, said the fees became a greater concern when the coronavirus pandemic shut down college campuses last year, making student activities financed by many of the fees unavailable.

“That made us all more interested in where the fees go,” he said.

While there are dozens of mandatory and elective fees, Harrell said one of the largest – the institutional fee – was a product of the Great Recession. She said her daughter, who attends Georgia Tech, is being charged an institutional fee of $544 per semester.

Teresa MacCartney, the university system’s acting chancellor, said the institutional fee was intended as a temporary measure to help offset the economic impacts of the recession when the Board of Regents approved it in 2009.

However, state tax revenues were slow to recover during the years following the economic downturn, even as enrollment across the system grew with students laid off because of the economy signing up for college classes.

“We had less resources but were required to provide more services,” she said.

MacCartney said the institutional fee raises $230 million a year, money the university system would be hard pressed to replace.

“How do you take away $230 million in revenue and assure we’re providing a quality education?” she said

MacCartney said most of the increase in student fees in recent years has been to pay the debt service on building projects not directly related to instruction, such as parking decks, student housing and on-campus recreation centers.

While the state finances classroom buildings and labs, non-instructional projects are paid for through public-private ventures that account for more than 20% of mandatory student fees, she said.

MacCartney said she has asked officials at all 26 system campuses to look for greater efficiencies that could help save money.

“There are some things we could probably tighten up,” she said. “But even tightening up, I don’t think, is going to drive $230 million.”

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and the study committee, promised the panel will take a close look at the fee structure without making any prejudgments.

“We certainly do not want to cripple our institutions,” he said. “At the same token, we don’t want to spend more than we need to spend to maintain fine programs.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

State Democrats fear Texas-style abortion bill in Georgia

ATLANTA – Just over a week before a U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals hearing on Georgia’s controversial abortion law, state Democrats said Wednesday they will continue fighting any Republican efforts to curtail reproductive rights in the future.

In a virtual press conference also attended by a Planned Parenthood official, Democrats specifically pointed to Texas’ newly passed abortion bill, which the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month refused to block from taking effect.

“What happens in Texas won’t stay in Texas,” said state Rep. Beth Moore, D-Peachtree Corners. “Not every pregnancy is an immaculate conception or a Hollywood-produced drama. There is a limit to what government can impose, and the Republican Party wants to replace God with government.”

The Texas law prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks. The Texas law leaves enforcement to private citizens through civil lawsuits instead of criminal prosecutors.

Watch the press conference here.

On Tuesday night, according to the Associated Press, the U.S. Justice Department filed an emergency motion in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, to stop the law’s enforcement.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hold a hearing on Georgia’s HB 481 Sept. 24.  Known as the Living Infants Fairness Equality (LIFE) Act, it also sought to prevent abortions beyond six weeks except in special situations. Lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights eventually led the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to rule the law unconstitutional.

If the 11th Circuit agrees with the district judge, Georgia could then appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may then look at the law’s constitutionality and the precedent of Roe v. Wade.

Gov. Brian Kemp also is expected to call a special legislative session, likely in November, to redistrict the state under newly released U.S. Census figures. Moore said “it has been suggested that while we’re in session, we could consider other measures” such as a Texas-modeled abortion law.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, said special legislative sessions are called for a specific purpose – such as redistricting – but a two-thirds majority vote of the General Assembly could expand its originally called purpose.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Upcoming flu season could be worse than 2020, doctors say

ATLANTA – The president of the Medical Association of Georgia said Wednesday this flu season could be worse than last year’s, and again stressed the importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“COVID-19 is a respiratory infection, so co-infection can bring a much higher risk of mortality,” said Dr. Lisa Perry-Gilkes. “Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself from the COVID-19 and flu viruses, period.” 

Perry-Gilkes said patients should “not to get lulled into a false sense of security because last year’s flu season was so mild. This could be a worse flu season, which is why I am encouraging every Georgian to get vaccinated as soon as possible, and no later than the end of October.” 

She added patients can now get the COVID-19, flu and other vaccines administered at the same time.  

On Tuesday, the state Board of Public Health was told almost 60% of new COVID-19 outbreaks are now in Georgia’s K-12 schools.

Cherie Drenzek, state epidemiologist for the Georgia Department of Public Health, said the highly contagious delta variant is responsible for the surge.

“The delta variant began spreading in Georgia around July 4,” Drenzek told a virtual meeting of the state’s Board of Public Health. “There has been an exponential increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the last 60 days.”

According to Tuesday’s COVID totals provided by the state Department of Public Health, more than 1.1 million Georgians have contracted coronavirus since the pandemic began in March 2020. A total of 20,806 Georgians have died, and there have been more than 76,000 hospitalizations.

According to data provided by Drenzek to the board, there has been a 20-fold increase in cases; a 13-fold increase in hospitalizations; and a 17-fold increase in COVID deaths since July 1.

However, both Gov. Brian Kemp’s office and Drenzek said state data has begun to show decreases over the last seven days.

Dr. R. Chris Rustin, director of the department’s Division of Health Protection, said as of Tuesday, more than 10 million vaccine doses have been administered in Georgia, with 4.7 million Georgians, or 45% of the state’s population, being fully vaccinated. About 5.4 million of the state’s residents, or 53%, have received at least one vaccine dose.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia’s 2021 graduating class beats national SAT average

ATLANTA – For the fourth year in a row, Georgia public-school students outperformed their counterparts in the nation’s public schools on the SAT.

The mean score of 1077 Georgia students recorded was 39 points higher than the national average for public-school students. 

According to a report issued Wednesday by the state Department of Education, Georgia’s public-school class of 2021 also recorded significant increases in scores compared to the class of 2020. The mean score for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW) rose from 532 in 2020 to 546 in 2021, and the mean for math rose from 511 in 2020 to 531 in 2021, for a total increase of 34 points in the average composite score. 

“Despite the fact that part of their high-school education took place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia’s class of 2021 did an outstanding job on the SAT — both increasing scores and outperforming their counterparts in the nation’s public schools,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said. 

Thirty-eight percent of Georgia’s class of 2021 took the SAT at some point during high school. This percentage is lower than normal, given the impacts of the pandemic – including the cancellation of some test registrations and closure of some test centers in 2020 – and the temporary waiver of SAT/ACT score requirements for University System of Georgia admissions. 

While the College Board does not release participation percentages at the national level, the raw numbers show a decline in participation nationally as well: 1.5 million students in the high school class of 2021 took the SAT at least once, down from 2.2 million in the class of 2020.

Wednesday’s news included only state-level test scores. The department said school and district-level scores will be released Friday. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.